Year 3 / Book 16: Man With A Seagull On His Head

16) Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige

I can’t remember why or where I added this to the ‘to-read’ list; I think it might have been in the Guardian’s round-up of recommendations from small presses. I think the title and the cover didn’t hurt either: it’s a memorably title and the cover is lovely. Just to establish early, as every review of this book must, the title character is not called Cliff. He is, in fact, called Ray Eccles and a seagull does fall on his head. This prompts some sort of epiphany in him, and he starts painting the woman he saw on the beach as he was struck, first in his house and then subsequently as an artist.

It’s a curious tale with leaps of narrative skipping us on from Ray’s artistic beginnings to when he is taken on by George and Grace Zoob (art collectors) and becomes a sensation; then later to when George is going through a bout of depression and the Zoob’s daughter Mira is modelling in a painting, and finally on to when Mira brings an art installation to fruition. Alongside this, we follow in parallel the life story of Jennifer Mulholland, the woman whom Ray saw on the beach: this is evocatively done, and affecting in its portrayal.

There is no neat denouement that ties up loose ends, and the leaps in narrative can be disconcerting at times. But I found this to be a wonderfully interesting, quirky and intriguing book; it’s concise, even novella-esque in length, but manages to also seem sweeping and cover significant ground. This includes Jennifer’s dutiful marriage, Mira’s longing for familial connection, the satirising of the art world (the French painter Gregoire is excellently ridiculous), and the strange, peripheral figure of Ray and what this all means. He is searching for it at a personal level, and so are the other characters in the novel in their different and divergent ways. This won’t be for everyone, but I found it something a bit new, a bit unexpected, a bit difficult to explain, and a little bit magical.

Score: 8.5/10

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